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the school’s enrollment grow from its initial size of only 30
students. “It’s nice knowing everybody, but it would be nice to
still have people that you haven’t met,” he said.
Hill admitted to having gone to bed at five o’clock
that morning. Student burnout and lack of sleep became
significant concerns among administrators. The dean of
student life even arranged a seminar in time management.
“It’s been a baptism by fire,” said Connelly, who earned a
perfect 1600 on her SATs and got all A’s at Thomas Jefferson
High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia.
Connelly took several “test courses,” including
“Lepidoptera of Nabokov,” which scrutinized the author’s
moth and butterfly references, and “What Is I,” a humanities
course that looked at self-perception and pondered whether
a computer can be an “I.” Every class ended with a post-
mortem, and every Friday at noon students sent what
they called “minute papers” to their professors by e-mail,
evaluating their classes. (They recommended jettisoning
the textbook used in “What Is I”). “The big difference next
year will be that we won’t be able to say, ‘I didn’t like this
assignment, so I didn’t do it,’” Connelly said.
By that time, more than 5,000 people had inquired about
enrolling among the next class of students. There were 536
applicants for 32 spots, even though the application deadline
was moved up a month to January 1. Once again, all were at
or near the top of their classes, with nearly perfect SAT scores.
They had built robots, translated books fromCzech into
English, and created computer-generated music. Seventy-six
were invited to the campus with their parents for a weekend
to see the still-unfinished buildings, meet each other, and
work on a massive problem-solving project in a Babson gym.
“Olin College?” asked the baffled Babson student at
the desk in the athletic center. But teams of high school
seniors in plastic safety glasses were already at work just
ahead, trying to find a way to build the longest cantilever, or
projecting structure anchored at one end, out of Styrofoam,
unsharpened pencils, crepe paper, five-gallon water jugs, and
file boxes. (“We didn’t have a box when we did it,” said Joelle
Arnold, a member of the Olin partners class.)
Other Olin partners walked around
dispensing advice and encouragement—
and looking like they own the place. “The
whole point is to introduce them to what
Olin’s going to be: very project-based,”
said Anderson. “We do own the place,”
she added. “We have pride of ownership.”
Another partner, AdamHorton—the
student who built the geodesic dome in
high school—said, “We love this place. This
is our baby. We are taking a risk by coming
here, so it has to be.”
An audience of onlookers—mostly
beaming parents—grew on a balcony.
The drama intensified. It was probably
the first time in this gym that the cheers
of the crowd were for an engineering
competition.
“Everything we have found so far is exactly what our son
has been asking us to find for him in an institution,” said
Jaime Cabezas of San Jose, Costa Rica,
whose son Luis was hard at work below
him. Luis had also been accepted by MIT;
his father was not concerned that Olin
College is far less well known. “Does that
really count for so much? If Olin College
becomes famous, he will have been in the
starting class.”
TomHaugen, whose daughter Frances
was also accepted by MIT and CalTech,
was not entirely convinced. A professor of
pathology at the University of Iowa who
went to UC Berkeley, he said: “I’ve heard
many times about higher education being
reinvented. Just what effect that all has in
the long term, I don’t know. It’s clear that
it’s a very good faculty. It’s just an unknown
quantity.”
But Frances, whose mother is also a
professor at the University of Iowa, said she
already knew she wanted to come here. Those other schools,
she said, “don’t stress the integrated approach, the application-
based process. They stress learning, rather than applying what
you learn. Part of the fun is that we’re engaged in an act of
creation here.” Just then, a fellow student asked her to take a
picture of their teamwith a tiny lens connected to his Palm
Pilot. “You know you’re in nerd country,” she said, obviously
delighted.
u
JonMarcus is a writer based in Boston who covers higher
education in the U.S. for the (UK)
Times Higher Education
magazine.
Many faculty gave
up substantial
seniority to come
here, and most agree
with the idea that
doing away with
tenure is “a bulwark
against mediocrity,”
as one put it.
Potential Olin students competed in an engineering exercise as parents and others
watched from the gym balcony.